chapter  1
12 Pages

Introduction: museums and things


Museums are about things. At least, museums hold things; and from most viewpoints objects and collections continue – some post-museums notwithstanding, perhaps – conventionally to define the museum and distinguish it from other cultural, epistemological and pedagogical establishments. This is not to say, of course, that museums are only about things or that objects are all that matters in the museum: much of the museological literature of the past twenty years at least, has been devoted to demonstrating precisely the opposite, showing the extent to which museums are about people, not just collections. Nevertheless, for most institutions and most observers it is objects, and the collection, preservation, storage, documentation, research and display thereof, that most easily characterise museums in contrast to other sorts of publicly oriented organisations which may also have goals of keeping and expanding knowledge, and educating and entertaining people.1 Explorations of museums and heritage settings that begin from and focus on things, can thus illuminate the changing social and political dynamics in how and why objects come to, and then are experienced and utilised within, the museum. Ultimately, these object-focused studies can also give us further theoretical and practical insight into the museum institution itself, as many of the chapters in this book demonstrate.